MIKE BURKE

Allegany Communications Sports

It is difficult to say how many truly must-see divisional rivalry games remain these days the way so many of them such as Cowboys-Redskins and Bears-Packers carried the defining years of the National Football League before it became a weekly television series known as #NFLTheTVShow.

One of the remaining rivalries, though, in which both teams, both organizations and both cities simply do not like each other would be the Baltimore Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers, which resumes for the first time this season Sunday afternoon in Pittsburgh.

The edge that exists between the two cities and the organizations is real, likely because when Baltimore and Pittsburgh look at each other they see themselves, as both cities and their teams have long been made up of blue-collar, hardscrabble people. In turn, the style of football the Ravens and the Steelers play and the games they produce when they face each other are normally the kind of games old-school football fans appreciate the most, as the bread and butter of both organizations is defense, the running game and a fiercely physical brand of football.

Even though there are a ton of new faces on both sides of the field each year in this revolving-door era of the NFL, the head coaches of the teams – John Harbaugh of the Ravens and Mike Tomlin of the Steelers – have held their respective positions for a combined 31 seasons, Tomlin having become the Steelers’ head coach in 2007 and Harbaugh the Ravens’ head coach in 2008.

Thus, should there be any doubt in the minds of any of the newer players on either team about what they are about to get themselves into, their head coaches have been involved in enough of these to be able to let them know.

The Ravens, after a so-Raven loss at Jacksonville and then a very uninspired 10-9 home win over Denver are somehow 8-4 on the season, tied with Cincinnati for first place in the AFC North even though the Ravens currently hold the head-to-head tiebreak. Yet it is the 5-7 Steelers who Las Vegas has made the three-point favorite for Sunday’s game.

That is due in part to the status of Baltimore quarterback Lamar Jackson, who left the Broncos game in the first quarter with a knee injury. Yet even before Harbaugh said that Jackson was unlikely to play against the Steelers, the betting line flipped from Baltimore being favored to Pittsburgh becoming favored by three, and that likely has to do with the play of the Steelers’ defensive front eight and the terrible play of the Ravens offensive line.

It could be a very long day for whoever plays quarterback for Baltimore.

With their 19-16 win over the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday, the Steelers have won two in a row for the first time this season and three of the last four.

After the Steelers appeared to have bottomed out at 2-6 entering their bye week, the play of rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett has been reeled in and dumbed down by Tomlin, who has the former Pitt star in a position of “managing the game” by not overextending his duties and assignments, and the team is now 4-4 with Pickett as the starter.

That is likely to continue on Sunday, although the Ravens secondary has been particularly suspect of late and Pickett has completed 65% of his passes for four touchdowns but has thrown eight interceptions. He has also rushed 42 times for 209 yards and three touchdowns this season.

To say the Ravens have had a stupid season thus far would be an understatement. They held double-figure leads in the second half of their first 11 games this season and still managed to lose four of them, two of them coming at home.

According to the Baltimore Sun, the Ravens are 4-2 against the spread in road games and they’re also 5-2-1 against the spread in their past eight games in Pittsburgh.

The Steelers lead the all-time series 32-24 and have won four straight over the Ravens, and it was about this time last year when the Ravens’ season began to come apart, as the Steelers handed them the first and the last of six straight losses to finish the season.

And to be truthful, despite what you would think was an impressive 8-4 record if you hadn’t seen Baltimore play this season, it’s never seemed the Ravens have fully recovered from the way last season ended. Other than the Monday Night win in New Orleans, this team has never been in sync and just when you allow them to fool you into believing they’re ready to turn a corner, they take at least one step backward.

Whether it is the annual wave of injuries, the coaching, the personnel, Lamar Jackson’s contract status, it’s impossible to say. But certainly there could be no better time for either team to put past transgressions aside and begin what Vince Lombardi used to tell his Packers teams was their “big push.”

Either way, it could be too late to recover lost opportunities, because the Cincinnati Bengals have clearly begun their big push and look like the team to beat as AFC North teams will mainly face each other in these final weeks of the season.

Mike Burke writes about sports and other stuff for Allegany Communications. He began covering sports for the Prince George’s Sentinel in 1981 and joined the Cumberland Times-News sports staff in 1984, serving as sports editor for over 30 years. Contact him at [email protected] and [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @MikeBurkeMDT